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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yogurt, Memories, and a Cold Russian Soup

Cold Russian Okroshka Soup

Yogurt, Memories, and A Cold Russian Soup
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

I recently made a cold soup from memory, based on a Russian soup I had taught in a class a few years ago.  To offer it to you, I had to dig through my files to find the actual recipe and look around for an old photo I took of the soup as my new version wasn't as pretty.  As I did so, I smiled again at the process by which recipes travel, sometimes via the internet across continents to other worlds, sometimes through friends or fellow bloggers,  often through the family network, frequently as a result of travel.  This recipe represents most of these.

It all started with my love of yogurt and yogurt-type ingredients.  I love them.  Always have.  For many of my readers, it would be difficult to imagine a world without yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and more, readily available in myriad flavors, in numbered cultures, from different types of milk.  From my early teen days when yogurt was a relatively new ingredient, at least in rural South Florida in the early 1960s with an electric yogurt maker that produced 6 or so tiny pots of yogurt that I could eat all at once, to travel days in Russia (where I drank everyone else's kefir at breakfast because I couldn't get enough--and no one else seemed to share my enthusiasm) or during my travels along the old Asian highway through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and beyond, where I ate fermented dairy products every day in many forms, to my years of living in the Middle East where the yogurts were incomparable, to our thoroughly modern world where all manner of cultured products are available practically everywhere. At every step of the way, I embraced cultured dairy products with gusto.

My recipe notes tell me that this version of Russian Yogurt Soup came from a site called, though when I search it, I can't find the original source.  My notes also tell me that whoever put the recipe on that site, adapted it from the version in the utterly wonderful Russian cookbook Please to the Table, which I bought so many years ago after eating the Moldavian Vegetable Soup at my friend Lucky's house, made from a recipe in the book.  You see the thread?  Recipes really do travel.

The name okroshka comes from the word kroshit, which means "to chop" in Russian.  Traditionally the recipe is made with kvass or kvas, a beverage made from black or rye bread, but this recipe uses plain cultured yogurt or kefir because it is more readily available.  Most recipes that I found online contain meat, such as ham, sausage, or bologna and often contain mustard, vinegar, pickles, and cooked potatoes.  A Bulgarian version contains walnuts.  The variations are great.  I chose to keep it vegetarian and simple.

A Few Notes on Yogurt
Simply put, yogurt is a fermentation of lactose in milk caused by the lactic acid produced by certain bacteria.  These bacteria, found in a culture or in many cultures, produce lactic acid, which acts on milk protein to give it its signature texture and sour tang.

I may have only discovered it during my teens, but Neolithic herdsmen knew of it over 8000 years ago.  By milking their animals and carrying the milk in containers made from animal stomachs, the milk curdled due to the enzymes found there.  Historians tell us that Genghis Khan and his armies lived on yogurt.  Eventually, yogurt spread to Europe and beyond.

The Danone company is attributed with the first industrialized production of yogurt in 1919 in Barcelona.  However, it was an Armenian immigrant family who introduced commercial yogurt to American in 1929.  In 1947 Dannon, from the original Danone of Spain and later France, introduced in America the first commercial yogurt with fruit on the bottom.  We've come a long way from those early animal stomach bags of fermented milk.

A few interesting facts about yogurt:
  • Yogurt can be made from the milk of any animal, and depending on where you are in the world  it might come from cows, goats, water buffalo, mares, ewes, camels or yaks
  • Yogurt can be dated to the Neolithic peoples of Central Asia to as early as 6000 B.C., which makes it one of the oldest processed foods in man's history
  • The word "yogurt" comes from a Turkish word which means to curdle or to thicken
  • Although most languages retain the Turkish name, it is also known as yoghurt, yaourt, yoghurd, and yogourt
  • As early as 2000 B.C., yogurt was used as both a cleaning produce and a beauty lotion (the acid in yogurt helps clean away dirt and rust as well as dead skin!)
  • Yogurt contains the same amount of protein and fat as the milk it is made from, as well as riboflavin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12
  • The domestication of cows dates to 9000 B.C. Libya, but it is accepted that the Central Asian Turks consumed mare's milk long before that, and possibly yogurt as well
  • Indian Ayurvedic scripts dating from about 6000 B.C. also refer to the health benefits of consuming milk products (but not yogurt specifically)
  • The cuisines that consume the most yogurt today are Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon
  • Yogurt became popular in the US after WWII (the Dannon company relocated there during the German occupation of Paris, where it had moved from Barcelona)
  • We know from Galen that the ancient Greeks may have known yogurt as "pyriate" 
  • Yogurt was known in France as early as 1542 (François I used it as a treatment for diarrhea)
  • Pliny the Elder wrote that certain nomadic tribes knew how to thicken milk into a substance with an "agreeable acidity--yogurt?
  • Other fermented dairy products include:  kefir, kumis, labneh, lassi, and shanklish

Cook's Notes:  This soup is really a salad in a bowl, filled in with liquid yogurt or kvass.  All of the ingredients should be served cold, whether presented as I do as a yogurt soup with separate garnishes or more traditionally, all stirred together.  This particular soup is often considered to be from Uzbekistan.

Okroshka:  Russian Cold Yogurt Soup
(Recipe from

For the liquid part:  
2 cups very fresh, young kefir or thick yogurt
2 cups cold water
(Note:  if using regular yogurt rather than the thick Greek type, use 3 cups yogurt and 1 cup ice cubes)

For the solid part:
1/2 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
1 small raw red beet, finely shredded (or boiled and julienned)
2 boiled eggs, cut into cubes
1 medium cucumber,  seeded and julienned
2 medium green onions, chopped
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Mix the ingredients for the yogurt base in a large bowl.  Serve the garnishes in individual bowls so the diner can create his preferred blend or simply garnish the soup with the chopped vegetables and top with a sprinkle of herbs.

I am sending this to Deb of Kahakai Kitchen for her fun event Souper (Soup, Salad & Sammies) Sundays.  Thanks, Deb!
Parting Shot:

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Recipes, like life, are meant to be shared, but please ask permission before using my photos or text.  Thanks.


Finola JC said...

I love reading your blog and have passed it on to several of my friends - who also love it!

Are you going to create a book someday from all these fascinating facts and anecdotes, histories and delicious recipes?

I do hope so...

Hotly Spiced said...

What an amazing and interesting dish. I have not heard of a cold yoghurt soup filled with a variety of vegetables. And so many interesting facts about yoghurt. Who knew! I had no idea yoghurt had been around for about 8000 years. Amazing. Love the image of the soup Victoria, it looks beautiful xx

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank you both, Finola and Charlie for your kind comments. I appreciate the encouragement. A book? I really need to get it all together...

Eha said...

Victoria - I am crying, 'cause kefir was everyday when I grew up in Estonia and my darling Mom [who, lets' face it, left most of the cooking to others!] made a most wonderful okroshka!!! So we are on 'home territory'. When I saw the first photo of yours I thought you were talking about a form of borscht, and then the magic beagn :) ! And now, OMG, I am thinking of all the other quite marvellous Russian soups [I think they were best at those!] of my childhood . . . and crying . . . and saying 'thank you'!

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Oh, Eha, I'm so happy this struck a chord with you. There are so many wonderful Russian soups that I know of, plus countless that I'll never know. I would love to hear about your childhood soups some time.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I know that I'd love this soup Victoria! For starters it has dill in it which is one of my favourite herbs but the rest of the ingredients are favourites too! :)

tania@mykitchenstories said...

A very interesting soup. I love yoghurt and what great facts you have discovered. Thanks for all of that interesting stuff Victoria!

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank you, Tania. This really is a good soup--something a little different.

CorrieCooks said...

Once a teacher always a teacher! Thanks for the very informative post! I homeschool my son and am a teacher of music and I love the theoretical side of I also go into where things originated and why dishes are named a certain way etc.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

So true, Corrie. I just can't help myself. But mainly, I just like to know the background--so why not share?

Joan Nova said...

What an interesting travelogue! Yes, in this day with our technology, recipes (and any other kind of information) travel far and wide. One doesn't need a Russian grandmother to pass down the recipe. :)

Joan Nova said...

What an interesting travelogue! Yes, in this day with our technology, recipes (and any other kind of information) travel far and wide. One doesn't need a Russian grandmother to pass down the recipe. :)

bunkycooks said...

Oh, what memories on those old yogurt makers. I had one, too. It is very true about recipes traveling and changing each time they pass through another source. Hopefully, every addition makes them even better.

Deb in Hawaii said...

I love how packed with great ingredients this soup is--so creamy and delicious. Thanks for sharing it with Souper Sundays. It's always nice to have you join in. ;-)

Mary said...
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